The Inside Agenda Blog

An interesting take on Zimbabwe: Mugabe's logic

by Mike Miner Thursday January 15, 2009

I read a really interesting article I found online called Lessons of Zimbabwe that ran in the London Review of Books in December.


I'm not sure how closely the average person follows the situation in Zimbabwe, but I'm certain everybody knows it's an absolute mess. Strongman president Robert Mugabe has won a series of rigged elections marked by voter fraud and targeted violence against his opponents. The Zimbabwean economy has collapsed, with a shortage of staple foods and fuel critically short and a 65 quadrillion per cent inflation rate that makes normal commerce nearly impossible for its citizens. And there's a cholera epidemic.


Mugabe can credit himself for most of the blame. His seizures of land and business from the remains of a colonial elite has crippled foreign investment and led most donor countries to halt aid and slap sanctions on the country, trying to focus as much as possible on its leadership.


Still, it seems there is a certain perspective we lack when we focus solely on the villainy of Mugabe. For example, the article in the London Review of Books says that while the farm confiscations have been poorly received, most Zimbabweans agree they were necessary.


Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of government at Columbia University, writes:


I was one of the 70,000 people of South Asian descent booted out by Idi Amin in 1972; I returned to Uganda in 1979. My abiding recollection of my first few months back is that no one I met opposed Amin’s expulsion of ‘Asians’. Most merely said: ‘It was bad the way he did it.’ The same is likely to be said of the land transfers in Zimbabwe.

What distinguishes Mugabe and Amin from other authoritarian rulers is not their demagoguery but the fact that they projected themselves as champions of mass justice and successfully rallied those to whom justice had been denied by the colonial system. Not surprisingly, the justice dispensed by these demagogues mirrored the racialised injustice of the colonial system. In 1979 I began to realise that whatever they made of Amin’s brutality, the Ugandan people experienced the Asian expulsion of 1972 – and not the formal handover in 1962 – as the dawn of true independence. The people of Zimbabwe are likely to remember 2000-3 as the end of the settler colonial era. Any assessment of contemporary Zimbabwe needs to begin with this sobering fact.


When Zimbabwe received it's independence, the change was formalized with Britain, the former colonial power, in a document drafter at Lancaster House in 1979. The majority of land was owned by white settlers, with the much larger native population crowded into plots of land. Most of the land was sub-par for farming. In the Lancaster document, the British agreed to fund land transfers made on a 'willing buyer, willing seller' basis.


Under this system, land transfers progressed at a glacial pace:


After the Lancaster House Agreement had expired, the government tried to occupy the middle ground by shifting from the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ formula with a new law, the Land Acquisition Act of 1992, which gave the state powers of compulsory purchase, though landowners retained the right to challenge the price set and to receive prompt compensation. By the late 1990s, market-led land transfers had dwindled to a trickle. So had British contributions to the fund set up to pay landowners, with a mere £44 million paid out between 1980 and 1992, much less than anticipated at Lancaster House. When New Labour took over in 1997, Clare Short, the minister for international development, claimed that since neither she nor her colleagues came from the landed class in Britain – ‘my own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonised not colonisers,’ she wrote to the Zimbabwean minister of agriculture and land – they could not be held responsible for what Britain had done in colonial Rhodesia.


In recent years, Mugabe has seized land with little compensation (paying only for improvements, nothing for the land itself) or no compensation at all. He told farmers that if they wanted compensation they must seek it from Britain. This seems insane, because it's not possible to tell a foreign government to pay your citizens for your own actions. But based on the Lancaster House agreement, there's a logic behind expecting Britain to live up to a commitment to recompense white farmers who lose land.


Of course, the land grabs were market by violence and terror. Gangs of "veterans" (many obviously too young to have served in Zimbabwe's independence struggle) occupied land, stole and destroyed property, assaulted and even murdered white farmers. With such a disastrous attempt to redistribute land, and the subsequent collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, it's easy to miss that the land transfer wasn't a complete disaster.


What land reform has meant or may come to mean for Zimbabwe’s economy is still hotly disputed. Recently there have been signs that scholarly opinion is shifting. A study by Ian Scoones of Sussex University’s Institute of Development Studies – in collaboration with the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape – challenges some of the conventional wisdom in media and academic circles within and beyond Zimbabwe. The problem with this wisdom is that certain highly destructive aspects of reform – coercion; corruption and incompetence; cronyism in the redistribution of land; lack of funds and an absence of agricultural activity – have come to stand for the whole process. In particular, Scoones identifies five myths: that land reform has been a total failure; that its beneficiaries have been largely political cronies; that there is no new investment in the new settlements; that agriculture is in ruins; and that the rural economy has collapsed. Researchers at PLAAS have been quick to point out that over the past eight years small-scale farmers ‘have been particularly robust in weathering Zimbabwe’s political and economic turmoil, as well as drought’. Ben Cousins, the director of PLAAS and one of the most astute South African analysts of agrarian change – who had previously argued that the land reform would destroy agricultural production – now says that the future of Zimbabwe lies in providing small farmers with subsidies so that food security can be achieved. According to researchers at the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, new farms need to receive subsidised maize seed and fertiliser for a few seasons before achieving full production. Some might give up during this period, but not many – partly because the land tenure system doesn’t allow land sales; only land permits or leases can be acquired.


All of the turmoil that came with these confiscations was multiplied by the flight of donor money that they caused. These two factors are crucial to understanding the current situation in Zimbabwe. While nothing excuses the thuggery and economic incompetence of Mugabe, it's revealing to look at the role the west played in the country's collapse.


It's an excellent article, and if you want to get a broader perspective on, land reform, the west's "smart sanctions" (which makes me a little nervous about Hillary Clinton talking about "smart power") and what lead Zimbabwe to its current situation, it's a must read.